Interview with Erik Hernandez.
Erik Hernandez is a Footwear Designer 2 at Vans and previously at K-Swiss. He graciously took some time to chat with CounterKicks after presenting to students in the treadproject at Hughes STEM High School in Cincinnati. Erik talks about his background, designing in the footwear industry, and sharing his advice for aspiring designers looking to break into the sneaker biz. Read on with Erik…
CounterKicks: Tell us your background and how you got into the footwear industry.
Erik Hernandez: From before I can even remember I was really into shoes, my parents always tell me about how I refused to ever take off my first pair of shoes and they had to cut off the vamp so I could keep wearing them until my toes hung off the outsole. The other thing I always showed interest in was art, especially drawing, but it wasn’t until college that I realized I could intertwine my two interests into a career path. After learning about the relationship between art and design in high school, I decided to study Industrial Design at Arizona State University. There was a student in the class ahead of me who had interned at K-Swiss that was able to put me in contact with the Design Director there. He reviewed my work and offered me a summer internship in 2006. From that point forward I kept in contact with K-Swiss and even did freelance work for them while I finished my senior year of college. After graduating and taking some time to look at job opportunities in different design fields, I ultimately decided that the footwear industry was where I wanted to be and K-Swiss had offered me a chance to join their team. After four years at K-Swiss, I was given the opportunity to be a part of Vans and decided to make the jump. It was really tough to leave K-Swiss, they were the first company to give me a shot and where I learned almost everything I know about shoes, but in the end I knew it was time for a new experience and Vans felt like a great fit. So here I am now.
CK: What shoes have you designed at Vans?
Hernandez: I have only been working with Vans since March, so nothing I am currently working on is available yet. I was hired on and given the opportunity to work on some new concepts that will be introduced in the second half of 2012. It has been a great way to come into Vans and help build something new and exciting for everyone involved, but there’s definitely a lot of pressure I’ve put on myself to show the team what I am capable of.
While at K-Swiss I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to help create a category called KS, which was based on the youth culture of Los Angeles to help the K-Swiss brand resonate with a younger consumer. It was an awesome experience to help with the entire process of product briefing and creation, as well as working with outside creative resources on brand identity and marketing concepts.
CK: What does your typical work day look like?
Hernandez: Because I’m still new at Vans, I haven’t necessarily been acclimated to a “typical” day yet. So far my days have a mixture of HR appointments, IT issues, learning names and positions, and being shown the ropes. I have gotten little tastes here and there of what a typical day is though, and I’m excited to get into the swing of things. The office is extremely casual and the people who work here are laid back, friendly, and love what they do. There are always people skating around the office, and others have their bikes or surfboards handy for some free time. It’s awesome to be in a place where not only do people work hard, but they make time to play hard as well.
CK: What’s the design process and culture like at Vans in developing new product?
Hernandez: I came into Vans in the middle of a design season, so I’m not totally familiar with this specific process yet, but it definitely has a similar feel to what the industry follows. The process typically starts eighteen months before a product is scheduled to release, a meeting where the category managers brief the design team on new products that need to be designed. Because there are usually more briefs than there are designers, it allows designers to work on projects that may not be briefed for the category the designer is assigned to, which is a nice change of pace sometimes. After briefing, the designers have time to research and begin conceptualizing. There is usually time allotted for research trips, so on top of looking through blogs, magazines, and videos, off-site research trips around Los Angeles or to other countries are key to gain insight on upcoming trends. This research not only helps inspire the designers, it gives the designers fire power to present and defend their concepts during design reviews. At the first review, rough ideas and sketches are presented to the design team and category managers, where everyone then has a chance to give feedback and make suggestions on which direction the designer should take for the next round. This happens for a couple of rounds until everything is hashed out and the team believes they have the best possible concepts. From there, the designer creates technical packages and blueprints of their designs and works with the development team to transfer these packages to the factories in Asia. The development team in Asia will translate the designer’s 2D drawings into 3D samples for the designer to approve before moving forward to production. The designer will typically have a few rounds of revisions in order to make the shoe as close to their concept as possible, taking into consideration costing, consumer target, and manufacturing capabilities. Around this time, the design team has the chance to travel to Asia to work on their projects directly with the factory for immediate adjustments and feedback. After all the finishing touches are made by design and development, final samples are produced for wear-testing, photo shoots, and for sales reps to present to accounts.
CK: What’s the best way for aspiring designers to get on the path of becoming a footwear designer?
Hernandez: There are so many things that designers can do to give themselves a head start on getting into the footwear industry. First off, know your history and keep up with trends. Shoes have been around for so long that there is always something you can reference from for aesthetics, construction, materials, colors, etc. On the other side of things, footwear technology and fashion is always advancing, so keep up on the latest innovations. When it comes to skills, hand sketching is still key. So much of shoe design is based off of side views and the massaging of traditional silhouettes, so it is important that designers learn to draw shoes in accurate proportion from the start. Get into the habit of drawing well proportioned shoes by using underlays, whether you use last profiles or photos of existing shoes. Every shoe is different but they always need to fit on a foot! On the computer side of things, knowing the ins and outs of Adobe Illustrator is of major importance. Almost all technical drawings and colorways are created using Illustrator, so the better you know it the easier and quicker all those tasks become. The best way to get into the industry is by finding an internship with a shoe company. A lot of design schools have programs where they work with companies to place students in internship positions for school credit, which is definitely a lot of help. Otherwise, check out company career websites for any openings listed or at least contact info for recruiters and/or human resources.
CK: Any websites or resources you regularly visit for inspiration?
Hernandez: I’m a fan of core77, coroflot, and IDsketching for design-related news, tips, and jobs. Sneaker News, The Shoe Buff, and CounterKicks always have the latest release info about sneakers and great interviews with people involved in the industry. My favorites for fashion and lifestyle news are Selectism, Hypebeast, and Street Etiquette. My favorite online stores are probably oki-ni, Need Supply, and Blackbird Ballard.
CK: Final words you’d like to get out to our readers?
Hernandez: Being a part of the footwear industry has been such an awesome experience, I feel like I made the right choice for myself when I decided to take this career path. It was an ideal way for me to combine my interests and give myself the chance to do something I love while creating something I love, all while making something that other people love to wear. If you really want to get in the shoe game, keep striving for it. There is no correct path to get into the industry, and some ways end up taking longer than others, just know you’ll need to be patient and dedicated on the way to your goal. You’ll know all the hard work was totally worth the first time you see someone on the street wearing a pair of shoes you designed.
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